When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.

New Short Story – ‘A Little Moment Of Happiness’

Whatever is happening, the mundane is never far away. The master criminal may well have a moment of doubt, wondering if the oven is still on. The professional assassin might be worried about their kid’s school tests. The hired thug might be struggling with the breakup of a relationship. And a husband-and-wife torture team, when you got past their job, would be just like any other couple.

This story, A Little Moment Of Happiness, sprung from these kind of thoughts. You can read it here.


The Freedom Of Pen-Names

fake-30346_640TW Iain is not my real name.

For any of you who have read my ‘about the author’ page, this should come as no surprise. I use a pen-name.

I’m not alone in this. Throughout the history of the written word, people have worked under pseudonyms. Some writers use multiple pen-names.

So why pretend to be someone else? Surely, if I’m proud of my books, I shouldn’t have a problem with them coming out with my real name on the cover. And if I’m embarrassed about them, or I’m worried that they’re not good enough, what am I doing throwing them out into the world?

It’s not that simple. There are many reasons for using a pen-name.

Writing in multiple genres

A lot of writers stick to one genre, occasionally flirting with others but always returning to their core. JRR Tolkien wrote some children’s stories, but they were still set in fantasy worlds, or had elements of the myths that influenced the rest of his work. Robert A Heinlein was prolific, but stayed within the bounds of science fiction. Terry Pratchett wrote comedy, predominantly within a fantasy setting.

But other writers spread themselves wider. Julian Barnes writes literary fiction, but he has also written mysteries, released under the name Dan Kavanagh. When JK Rowling writes her Cormoran Strike books, she does so under the name Robert Galbraith.

There are good reasons for this. If readers are accustomed to a particular type of book from an author, they are not going to be happy if that author releases something too different. Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter are written for very different audiences.

Many authors who write across different genres cultivate different brands, with a pen-name for each one. Even someone like Johnny B Truant, who writes and produces a wide range of books under that name (which is not his real name anyway), uses another pen-name, Aubrey Parker, for his romance titles. Many authors who write clean romance and erotica use different names‌—‌readers wanting a sweet love story are not going to be enamoured by graphic sexual content, and the erotica readers are going to be disappointed if there is nothing physical between the main characters.

So using different names for different genres can help readers identify the books they are more likely to enjoy. It can work to avoid confusion and frustration

Going against prejudices

The Cormoran Strike books highlight another reason for using a pen-name, one that was more common years ago but that still (unfortunately) exists. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are written for children (of all ages), but the Cormoran Strike books are thrillers. This is a genre where, generally speaking, readers are more likely to accept a book written by a male.

There have been cases of female authors using male pen-names in order to gain acceptance throughout the history of the written word. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became George Sands. Harper Lee, when she released To Kill A Mockingbird, dropped her first name (Nelle), using instead her more ambiguous middle name.

And such prejudices do still exist today, and I came across a book review recently that highlighted this. The book was by an author who used initials rather than a first name, and the reviewer was angry. He seems to have enjoyed the book, but also assumed the author was male. When he found out that this assumption was wrong, he changed his opinion of the book, and his review explained how he felt tricked, and would never have read the thing if he’d know the author was a woman.

I don’t know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, or be concerned that some people think like this.

Of course, many writers use initials rather than a name. Nora Roberts writes detective fiction as JD Robb. Another example is Joanna Penn. She writes books about the indie-publishing business, and is well-known and well-respected as a podcaster and speaker, and a driving force in the whole indie scene. She also writes dark thrillers with supernatural elements, and puts these out as JF Penn. Yes, part of her reason for doing this is to separate her two brands, but I believe she went with initials partly because it makes her books more acceptable to a wider audience.

There are times when male authors lean towards a female pseudonym, especially in romance, as the previously mentioned example of Truant/Parker highlights. I have also heard of a husband-and-wife team who write erotica, but they use her name on the covers, because many erotica readers are more comfortable reading books written by a female.

As a final example of this, when Bloomsbury published the first Harry Potter book, they suggested Rowling use initials, on the basis that boys were less likely to pick up a book written by a woman.


This is, I think, a big reason for using a pen-name, and there are a number of facets to it that are worth considering.

Generally, the job people do comes to define who they are. When someone asks ‘what do you do?’ they mean ‘what job do you do that takes up the main part of your day and provides your main financial support.’ Anything else is considered a hobby, maybe interesting but often frivolous. The job is the important thing.

So some writers, especially those with ‘important jobs’, or those working in a role that brings them into contact with ‘the public’, can use a pen-name to shield the writing part of their life.

For others, there can be tension between their ‘job’ and their ‘writing’. I’m thinking here of those who work with, but also write stories of a more adult nature (such as erotica or hard horror). And some of you reading this will feel awkward at this point. Is it right that someone producing such adult material can also work as, for example, a teacher? Is that even safe?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be safe. A teacher might work with children, but they are still an adult. A teacher with children of their own has engaged in activities that are unsuitable for kids. As long as that part of their life does not have a negative effect on their job, there should be no problem. But a teacher writing for a mature audience needs to be careful, and using a pen-name can help greatly. It is not about hiding, but about keeping different parts of their life separate.

This doesn’t only apply to those working with the young or the vulnerable. For many people, it is healthy to have some separation between work and home life. Books, once they are released, are public. Family is private.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote a book describing his early life living in poverty, but he didn’t want this to embarrass his family, so he used the name George Orwell. Out Of Africa was originally credited to Isak Dinesen, although it is now available under the author’s real name of Karen Blixen. It is unclear why she used a pen-name, but one suggestion is that the Blixen family were well-known in Denmark, and she wanted to protect the family name. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen as cashing in on her family’s credentials.

Maybe this is why Joe Hill writes under that name, and not under his given name of Joseph Hillstrom King. Being the son of Stephen King would definitely garner interest from the public, but it would also pile on the expectations. Using the name Joe Hill helps his books succeed or fail on their own merits.

And, interesting, this is a reason that King himself used a pen-name for some of his books. He wondered if his books were selling because they were good, or because his name was splashed across the cover, and so he produced a series of titles under the name Richard Bachman, with none of the marketing push his ‘King’ novels got. He never answered his own question, though, because after a few years he was ‘outed’ when people spotted how similar in style Bachman was to King (especially in Thinner, which contained a similar supernatural element to his ‘King’ books).

So using the anonymity of a pen-name can protect family, and it can provide a way of proving (or otherwise) an author’s writing. It can also provide a way of escaping expectations, either externally or internally imposed‌—‌important when a writer wants to go wherever the story leads without having to worry about possible repercussions in the ‘real world’.

It sounds better

This one might appear flippant, but the sound (and look) of a name is part of a writer’s brand, and plays a role in marketing and selling books. I’ll give a few examples.

Charles Lutwidge Dobson is a bit of a mouthful, but the name Lewis Carroll rolls of the tongue in the playful manner associated with Alice’s adventures. The name Joe Hill has a far stronger impact than Joseph Hillstrom, especially for a writer of horror and thrillers. Daniel Handler is a fairly forgettable name, but Lemony Skicket grabs the attention and promises something different.

The Harry Potter author has no middle name, but someone obviously thought J Rowling didn’t sound quite right. So she borrowed the first letter of her mother’s name, and became JK Rowling.

Sometimes, the better sounding pen-name can work against prejudices too, especially when readers might be wary of trying a ‘foreign’ author. So Jozef Korzeniowski becomes Joseph Conrad, and Alisa Zonov’yevna Rosenbaum becomes Ayn Rand.

And the look of the name? I recall hearing that ‘Stephen King’ is an ideal name for marketing because of how it looks on the book cover‌—‌longer first name in smaller letters, with the strong second name in larger letters.


Of course, there are many more reasons writers use pen-names, but this post is already too long. And besides, does it really matter? The name is a label, and it is useful for branding and marketing, but after that? When I’m reading a book I don’t think about who the writer is. I don’t look at the cover. I just want a well-told story.

The Problem With Novelisations

There are many ways to tell a story. Two of the most popular are books and films, and although the same story can be told in both formats, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it is rare that a single title will work well on both screen and page.

In my experience, if the movie is an adaptation of a novel (or short story), the movie will not work as well. Conversely, if the book is a movie novelisation, the original film will be superior. There are exceptions, where both book and movie stand up on their own (Fight Club, The Princess Bride, Lord Of The Rings, and Trainspotting spring to mind), but generally whichever came first is the stronger telling, and the adaption is a reflection.

StarWarsI read the original Star Wars novel when it came out (way back in 1977). I’m sure I enjoyed it, because I remember reading it a few times. But I re-read it recently, and I was unimpressed‌—‌and I think I know what the problem was.

It follows the film too closely.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Harry Potter books is that JK Rowling doesn’t write novels, but films in prose form. Maybe that’s overly harsh, but the books are very visual, and it is easy to play the films along mentally when reading them. But if Harry Potter is films in prose, Star Wars is little more than a straight description of what appears on the screen.

Yes there are some additional scenes, and occasionally we are in the heads of one of the characters, but generally, the book describes the film, scene by scene. It’s like a fleshed-out script. Yes, reading the book reminded me of the film, but it also made me regret wasting my time ploughing through the words when I could have got a better experience spending two hours with the DVD.

Films are visual, but books need to work harder to evoke similar images. An expression on a character’s face can convey emotion, but to convey the same emotion in words requires more (or different) work. It is not enough to simply describe the images.

Think of the space battles in Star Wars. On the screen, we cut between close-ups of the pilots and wide shots of X-Wing fighters screaming past. There are explosions all around. We hear voices, and laser fire. Everywhere is action and adrenaline-fuelled excitement, and the speed of movement only increases the tension.

In the book, we get paragraphs describing these quick cuts, and they soon become a list of what is happening rather than a narrative of the action. One moment, we’re with Luke, then suddenly we have someone firing a missile from another fighter. Then we’re back with Luke for a moment, before a paragraph describes fighters screaming through the trench on the Death Star. After that, we’re in another cockpit, with sparks surrounding the pilot as he cries out.

The cutaways work on film, but not in the book.

I’ll give another example. At one point in the film, the camera watches R2-D2 following a path on Tattoine, and we get the impression that he (it?) is being watched, and we feel nervous anticipation. In the book, we get a description of this scene, but it conveys next to no emotion.

Why? In the film, we are concerned about the little robot (or at least we are interested in seeing what happens next). We feel for R2. But with a straight description, everything is distant. We are too far removed from what is happening.

For that scene to work in text, I can’t help feeling it would have been better to be in R2’s head, or at least see his point of view. Maybe have a description of the rugged terrain, and the caves along the route, with R2’s sensors picking up life-forms. There’s movement, high up on a cliff, but when R2 turns his head, it’s already gone. But he has his mission, and he needs to carry on, even though he doesn’t like this inhospitable terrain. And there are all the stories he’s heard, and the information in his data banks, of the creatures that roam this desert planet.

See what I mean? In text, we need to be closer to the characters’ emotions. We need more than a description of what is happening. A cool scene in a film might grab us, and a brief glance at a character is often all that is needed to convey emotion, but in a book we often need something more internal.

The book is a ‘novelisation of the film’, and so maybe the author (credited as George Lucas, but I believe Alan Dean Foster did the actual writing) was limited to what he could do. Or maybe the book was rushed, being pushed through to release at the same time as the film. After all, Star Wars was the movie where merchandising really took off, and the ‘book of the film’ perhaps should be seen in light of that.

Back in the seventies, the only way to see the film was at a cinema, until it was released on video three years later, and on television a couple of years after that. Fans didn’t have the opportunity of on-demand viewing, but the merchandise surrounding a film kept it fresh. The action figures enabled fans to reenact their favourite scenes. And maybe the book’s main purpose was to be a reminder of the film, and the way the movie played out in my head as I read the book should be seen as a mark of its success.

I can’t help thinking it could have been a great novel, though. The story itself is a classic, taking the Hero’s Journey and placing it in an exciting new setting, with alien worlds to explore and a cast of interesting characters. And these characters have conflicting motives that change over time. The story has an incredible scope, from the bickering robots to the world-destroying space-station, from Luke being ripped from his quiet home life to Leia’s political machinations, from Solo’s ‘get what you can’ attitude to the battle of ideologies between Empire and Rebellion. Love and death, war and peace, survival and friendship‌—‌Star Wars touches on them all.

Surely this deserves more than a bulked-out movie script.